Friday, February 25, 2011

the freshman: confessions of a caltech beaver

At the end of my 16th summer, I went off to college at Caltech. The California Institute of Technology. A bastion of science and engineering.

It was only a handful of years after the school went coed.

“The Truth Shall Make You Free” said the school’s motto.

“Caltechnicality” said Leslie, who would never go to a place like Caltech.

But just like that, in the late September heat, as the smog erased the San Gabriel Mountains from Pasadena’s skyline, I became a Caltech Beaver.

That’s right: Caltech’s mascot is a beaver.

That year the Caltech bookstore, in an unironic effort to be inclusive, carried a line of women’s t-shirts that declared right across the wearer’s breasts, I’m a Caltech Beaver. The joke eluded me at the time. I was a naïve 16-year-old.

When I let on that I was going to Caltech, my high school English teacher was shocked. My high school guidance counselor was shocked. Even my high school physics teacher was shocked. To all of them, it seemed to be a peculiar decision.

But my high school chemistry teacher, a man who’d accidentally set fire to his desk during class, wasn’t at all shocked. It’s not just that nothing surprised him after 20 soul-numbing years of teaching adolescents about valence electrons; he also thought I was Matt Marshall’s younger sister. Matt was a fine chemistry student who’d gone to Caltech not long before. My chemistry teacher had no recollection of me, but when Caltech contacted him, he recommended me as a young scientist of great potential.

Must run in the family, he thought.

But I was not Matt’s younger sister. The reason my chemistry teacher had forgotten me was that I’d taken chemistry in summer school so I could concentrate on macramé and focused absenteeism during the regular school year. Even though I’d gotten an A in his class, the desktop fire Mr. B had started—he was showing us how to make our own fireworks—was far more memorable than anything I did.

My lab partner Cynthia and I had spent the summer flirting with the surfer who sat next to us in the last row. Through our heroic coaching efforts (and by letting him copy our tests), we’d raised his grade to a C. That was our real chemistry project; it was as challenging any synthesis. The surfer had absolutely no aptitude for chemistry, and—what’s worse—he was an inaccurate and haphazard copyist.

He was cute though. Blond. And he was the scion of a prominent family (what passes for old money in LA) and, s orbitals aside, he had nothing to worry about. His last name should’ve tipped me off, but I was too oblivious to figure it out. The ____ Pavilion. The Times masthead. I saw his last name everywhere.

He didn't have to worry about where he was going to go to college.

My friend Carol had started studying college catalogs our freshman year (and probably had begun imagining what it’d be like to walk through a leafy quad, textbooks in hand, with several attractive, laughing companions at her side, although she never said so). What could be sillier, I thought at the time. College catalogs. No way.

It was like looking at the Rochester’s Big and Tall Men’s Catalog. Completely irrelevant.

To be sure, when I applied to colleges, I only knew the names of especially prominent Ivy League schools, and especially proximate Southern California schools. Harvard, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Yale, Cal State Long Beach, MIT, Harbor Junior College, UCLA, and El Camino Junior College. Oh, and Stanford, if just because they were reputed to like only tennis players with big shiny white teeth.

At 15, I was unathletic and demonstrated no leadership potential. I wasn’t a Candy-Striper, nor was I a 4H-er, milking goats in my backyard. I wasn’t musically gifted. I had no fashion sense nor social grace.

You know those kids who aren’t conventionally smart, but who are rather ‘blessed with an acute emotional intelligence’? The kids who are graffiti artists, who can shoot hoops and write poetry. Or who, as at-risk tech-savvy youth, can address the California Assembly about pressing educational issues?

That wasn’t me either.

When (with no small amount of dread) I applied to Caltech, I was a 15-year-old junior in high school. Getting a driver’s license was more interesting to me than applying to college.

When Carol finally opted for the University of Chicago, I asked her why she wanted to move to the East Coast. Chicago was adjacent to New Jersey, was it not? Besides, by my reasoning at the time, wouldn’t you want to go to a school that was named after a state, and not a city?

By my rules, the University of Illinois beat out the University of Chicago just as surely as the University of California beat out the University of San Diego.

That’s just the way it worked.

Caltech I regarded fatalistically, like an act of god or a sneeze—unstoppable, inevitable, and phlegmy. If I got in, I’d have to go there. Best to just let it happen and deal with it afterward.

I took one trip to Pasadena over Christmas break my junior year in the company of a boy, Tim, who drove an old Mercedes and insisted you close the car’s doors just so, softly, but decisively, without slamming them; he was the ex-boyfriend of Carol’s older sister, and he’d been a student at Caltech for three years already. I was mildly intimidated, so I focused on closing the car door properly and not asking too many questions.

Classes weren’t in session, and the campus was quiet. Tim took me to one of the student houses (Dabney, the student house I would later live in).

I examined the living situation as if it were a life-size diorama. Two palm trees and a brick courtyard were visible from the Room 8 window. Outside there was a vague whiff of pot smoke and squashed oranges. A textbook lay open on the floor.

So this was college.

The metal-framed beds and thin blue-striped cotton mattresses fit my conception of summer camp, or perhaps a low-to-medium security prison. The room’s floor was polished cement; the dressers and desks were oak, with scars inflicted by generations of students.

We didn’t stay long. We drove the 40 miles back across LA just a few hours later. Tim recited a faithful rendition of the B-side of Don’t Crush that Dwarf (Hand Me the Pliers) as he drove down the Pasadena Freeway. I got out of the Mercedes in front of Carol’s house and closed the car door carefully.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for driving me out there.”

He didn’t ask me whether I was still planning to apply to Caltech, and it didn’t occur to me not to. I was mildly relieved by what I'd seen. Nobody'd said anything about science.

The summer before college—the summer after my junior year in high school—my diffidence turned into a monotonically-increasing sense of panic. What was I supposed to do to get ready? I'd never studied for anything. Not the SAT. Not finals. Not even a high school math test.

During the early part of the summer, I just let all the pre-college stuff wash over me, like you would waves at the beach. You turn sideways for most of them, and you duck under the big ones. You deal with them one at a time. You just show up and stand there.

That was my plan: I would just show up and stand there.

About a week before I was supposed to go, I started to pack an old footlocker. It was army-green and had big brass fittings. I don’t think it was authentic—it was flimsier than you’d expect from its color and general demeanor—but I did have the sense I was in the army now.

My boyfriend Brian and I sat on the living room floor, and wrote my name and my parents’ address in my books, a Funk-and-Wagnall’s dictionary (“Look that up in your Funk-and-Wagnall’s!”), an ancient CRC Handbook filled with log tables, chemical properties, and solutions to common differential equations, and a Roget’s Thesaurus. These we stacked in my footlocker along with my clothes and some vinyl records (records that I already had the sense were relics of my childhood rather than music a college student would play).

I had a baby-blue ROYAL portable manual typewriter, one where you’d raise the entire carriage when you pressed the shift key. You had to have STRONG fingers to type capital letters. We used a Dymo label-maker, and put my name on that too.

We stopped just short of sewing name tags in my underwear.

I ate compulsively all summer and got my first UTI.

Most kids who left high school after their junior year will say, “Oh yeah. I just had to GET OUT. I couldn’t wait to go to college.”

Me, not so much. I was a pussy. I knew I had it good in high school, and I had no particular desire to leave. Most of my friends weren’t leaving. They were looking forward to their senior year even if they hated high school. If I stuck around, I could work on the literary magazine with my friends, ditch classes here and there, and fill my schedule with electives, since I had all my science classes out of the way. That’s why I took chemistry during the summer forgodssake.

I had a bad feeling that once I went to Caltech, there’d be more science classes. I didn’t need the catalog to know that.

Mid-July a form arrived in the mail, a form that asked a number of personal questions. My age. My weight. My height. My interests. My hobbies. The clubs I’d belonged to. The offices I’d held. A photo was requested, to be affixed on the top right of the form.

I filled it out with all due earnestness, without thinking about who would read it, and what it could possibly be for. Perhaps someone would discover that I wasn’t devoted to science, and they’d revoke my admission.

For some reason, some inexplicable, paradoxical reason, I feared some kind of post hoc rejection, even though I had no particular desire to go to Caltech. Each question deserved a snarky answer. Some could’ve been left blank. I could’ve rounded up or down on others, and not been embarrassed.

But that’s not what I did. Instead I answered as if the questionnaire were a trick, a form designed to reveal that I was not an inchoate Nobel Prize winner, and that I was a sham.

Did I really have to say that I was vice-president of the ping pong club? Did I have to maintain that lie I told on my application that I’d worked on building a laser? (The former office was a joke. I’d feigned interest in the latter, but I’d never done a thing about it, beyond checking a book out of the library on the topic and keeping it until it was way overdue.)

Worse yet, did I have to hide what I was actually interested in that summer (Bunuel. The Rocky Horror Show. JD Salinger. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. King Lear)?

I filled out the form as if I were applying all over again.

Later I’d learn that the forms were for the student houses (which were a cross between frats and dorms), not for the admissions office. Upperclassmen scrutinized these forms—especially the ones the scarce frosh girls turned in—looking for whatever it is that forms like this reveal (say, girls who look like Megan Fox, but who have a strange fixation on guys who really know the X-Men canon). When I matriculated (and the word sounds appropriately dirty here), the male to female ratio was still something like 10:1; the twenty-odd freshman girls were conspicuous, and could be fully analyzed in advance of their arrival on the scene.

Probably I should’ve left the form blank and sent in a much better picture, possibly a picture of someone else.

No wonder the boy (he must’ve been a junior or senior at the time) who introduced himself to me that first week as “Scott ____, the Unit Toad” gave me such a disgusted look when I made up a pseudonym for myself. He already knew my real name. He’d seen The Form. And here’s the humiliating part: he’d figured I was the kind of girl that was within his social reach.

I was within the social reach of Scott _____, the Unit Toad. I’d done something very, very wrong.

Caltech was a small school. With 700 or so undergrads, Caltech was about a quarter the size of my high school, which was large, socially forgiving, and more or less anonymous. The form was only a small measure of my cluelessness.

The odds are good, but the goods are odd, the saying went.

The Caltech Health Center worked very hard to convince all the freshman girls to go on birth control pills. You went to the Health Center with allergies, and left with birth control pills. A sprained ankle? Birth control pills couldn't hurt. Tonsillitis? You left the Health Center with a small brown paper bag of birth control pills.

I still have my freshman facebook. I looked horrible. Horrible! It was hot in Pasadena when I arrived to register for classes, when those mug photos were taken. My face was shiny and broken-out, and my nose looked broader than ever. In short, I looked like I fit in perfectly.

But I didn’t.

I registered for the normal slate of classes. Math 1. Physics 1. Chem 1. Chem lab. An English class. And an odd elective, Basic Graphics, an engineering drawing lab that was phased out of the curriculum before my sophomore year.

I liked Basic Graphics; I dutifully learned lettering, architectural drafting, and how to draw (freehand) a variety of knobs and dials to control instrumentation. It was a swell class.

I liked my English class too. The assignments and novels were recognizable. Essays I could write without breaking a sweat. Mostly books I’d read already. The first class meeting, one of my classmates, Alan Silverstein said, “Why do we have to read fiction? It’s a waste of time reading about something that didn’t even happen!”

I was stunned and reported the incident to my high school friends. They were, needless to say, not planning to go to Caltech anyway. This just sealed the deal.

The other classes at Caltech—the math and science classes, the bulk of my schedule—were hard and inhospitable. Midway through my first term of math, I realized I was struggling. Drowning. I’d never asked for help in high school. I never needed it. But now I was in Math 1, the first year of two years of required math, and everybody else had already taken a year of calculus in high school. I hadn't.

We were learning about winding numbers. That’s what the two professors who taught the class thought we should know. Winding numbers. Winding numbers were crucial to their own research. Winding numbers.

I've heard people complain about high school math. “I’ll never use any of that stuff,” they whine (and re-assert as adults). “Who needs to know trigonometry? Or algebra? There are no Xs and Ys or adjacent angles in the real world.” I never complained about high school math. I liked high school math and have even used much of what I learned before I took Math 1.

But winding numbers? No. I could not foresee a use for them when I was a freshman and I was right.

And I wasn’t even alone on that one. Someone—Terry Sheehan, perhaps, a freshman from Chicago who wore a cowboy hat and had the great good sense to drop out by the end of his sophomore year—stuck up his hand in lecture and asked, “What’s the winding number of a buttfuck?” He said it with the perfect aplomb of someone who was passing the class.

“Ha-ha!” responded the class.

“Ha-ha!” I laughed too, although I did not have the luxury of perfect aplomb.

“Just think of winding numbers as an infinite screw!” my TA Henry said in section. He said it earnestly, by way of explanation, but then realized that without much effort, he’d made a little joke.

“Ha-ha!” went the rest of my section, albeit a little less heartily than they’d laughed at Terry’s outburst. Henry would burst out crying on occasion, so it seemed best to laugh at his jokes.

An infinite screw. Right. I knew that if I’d understood winding numbers, I’d know why Henry thought he’d come up with a perfect joke.

The professors—two of them taught the class—were remote figures, flesh obelisks, one squat, and one tall, scrawling integral signs and Greek letters on the board. An infinite screw. The winding number of a buttfuck.

I couldn’t do the problem sets. I’d look at them and draw a complete blank. I’d scrawl page after page of meaningless symbols in the hope of gathering enough partial credit to pass the class. At worst, I’d learn the Greek alphabet.

Finally, about six weeks into the term, I gave up. I’d ask for help; that's what I would do. That’s what office hours were for. For help. Knowing the Greek alphabet probably wasn’t going to be enough.

I trudged up the stairs of the Sloan Laboratory of Mathematics so I could talk to the squatter, more fatherly-looking of the two professorial obelisks during his office hours. I explained to him that I hadn’t understood much of the past few lectures.

Another lie. That implied I’d understood some portion of the last few lectures when in fact I’d simply taken notes as fast as I could—there was no real textbook for the class, just Xeroxed pages of an incomprehensible book the two profs were writing—and I’d understood NONE of the past few lectures.

Sometimes I even stopped taking notes and instead drew cartoons of the squat professorial obelisk and tall professorial obelisk. In my cartoons, they had visible nose hairs. The squat one I made squatter and more walrus-y; the tall one was more like a bowling pin. A bowling pin with a crewcut. But even this didn't make me feel better.

And now I was standing in front of the squat professor in his honest-to-god professorial office. He was not a cartoon; he was much bigger than he looked from the very back row of the lecture hall.

In an out-of-body moment, I could hear myself asking him a question.

It was as if I were in a foreign country and had just summoned the temerity to order TWO broiled tractors from a street food vendor. I’ll have TWO broiled tractors. TWO BROILED TRACTORS. Por favor. On toast.

“Are you sure you’re in the right place?” the squatter math professor asked me without even the slightest hint of compassion in his voice. We’d reached the end of our conversation. I understood even less than when I'd walked in. “Maybe you should be a housewife,” he added. “Maybe that would be better for you.”

He had given up on me before he’d even tried to help me.

I left his office without reply.

I wouldn’t be a very good housewife either, I thought, my flip-flops slapping time as I descended the stairs. I don’t even know how to iron.

There were probably other freshmen who were just as confused as I was, but none of us wanted to be the first victim of the intellectual eugenics program the faculty seemed so proud of. Some years later, a Hispanic classmate who’d gone to high school in East LA, and who was at Caltech on a minority scholarship told me, “They said they’d give me help, and get me caught up with everyone else. But they never did.”

By spring break I was more than desperate. I dropped acid immediately before my Physics final so I’d have an excuse for how badly I was about to do. My bluebook was full of drawings, figures, and irrelevant annotations.

My parents gave the okay, and I transferred to UCSD to finish my freshman year. Through some burst of good luck, the schools’ spring breaks aligned, and the transfer went through quickly and without much ado.

The dorms at UCSD were not funky. The students lived in suites, tidy, anonymous suites. Two girls in one room; two girls in another. The four of us shared a common room and a bathroom. The three other girls in my suite were pre-meds, and I was evidently taking the place of a fourth pre-med who couldn’t cut it.

I could tell they’d liked her, and that they didn’t much like me.

“Don’t smoke that in here,” my roommate said when I lit up a joint at my desk.

I moved to the stairwell. It was spring in La Jolla, balmy and eucalyptus-y. It was not unpleasant to be sitting in an open-air stairwell smoking a joint. A nearby stereo boomed out Truckin’.

“Hi,” I said to a guy who brushed past me on the stairwell.

He didn’t say anything. He headed toward the suite with the music.

“Fuck you too,” I said under my breath. I waited for the suite’s door to close, then I started to cry. Very quietly. I finished smoking my joint and went back to my suite to sit at my desk. I stared at my bulletin board. Nothing was posted on it yet.

I was evidently a space alien here too.

I stayed at UCSD for a week, maybe only most of a week, maybe less than 7 days. I don’t remember going to very many classes. I just remember feeling like I was interrupting something that was already well underway. Everyone already had friends, a sense of purpose, and had taken 114b together last term.

I smoked most of the pot I brought with me. It wasn’t very strong, and no-one ever joined me in the stairwell. I cried a few more times, but not in front of my roommates. I spoke to no-one. My roommates dressed neatly (too neatly, I thought) and went to their biology classes. They were serious, and it was all too clear to them that I was a goofball and a geek. And a loser. All those things, all at once, and those were my assets, my A-game. I was not a pre-med: that much was clear.

I didn’t dare say anything to them. I overheard one of them tell her boyfriend that I was only twelve years old.

At the end of the week, I called my parents, and they drove me back to Pasadena. I was a week late, but could add all of my classes and catch up. Catch up. As if I would’ve been caught up had I been there for that lost week.

At least I had an excuse for being a week behind. I sat on a saggy couch in the courtyard and started the LA Times crossword puzzle.

“Hi Cookie,” Gesine said. “You’re back!” She was wearing bright yellow bell-bottoms and a hot pink t-shirt.

“I’m glad you came back,” Gary said. Gary was a skinny boy who drank Dr. Pepper. He didn’t eat anything, just drank Dr. Pepper. Six or eight bottles a day, according to the rumor mill. Every time you’d see him, he’d be tipping back a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He was a junior, a chemistry major.

Before he told me he was glad I came back, I didn’t even think he’d noticed me.

“I’m glad I came back too,” I said. And just then, I was.